Gadgets and gigawatts

Nobuo Tanaka,
Executive Director,
15 May 2009 – Switching to the best technologies available today would save at least 40 percent of residential electricity consumption in most appliance categories. Moreover, additional savings are possible from the commercialization of technologies that are now under development.

This is the main conclusion from a new publication from the International Energy Agency (IEA), “Gadgets and Gigawatts”, which reviews the energy consumption of appliances and other electronic devices that are a feature of 21st century life.

The study finds that over the next seven months, the number of people using a personal computer will pass the one billion mark. Electronic devices currently account for 15 percent of household electricity consumption but their share is rapidly rising. Already there are nearly 2 billion television sets in use, with an average of over 1.3 sets in each home having access to electricity. Over half the global population subscribes to a mobile telephone service, and the number of external power supplies associated with many electronic devices now exceeds 5.5 billion.

Without new policies, the energy consumed by information and communications technologies (ICTs) and consumer electronics will double by 2022 and increase threefold by 2030 to 1,700 TWh. This will jeopardize efforts to increase energy security and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, the report says.

However, opportunities for savings are considerable. Electricity consumption from residential ICTs and consumer electronic devices could be cut by more than half through the use of the best technology and processes that are currently available. This would slow growth in consumption to less than 1 percent per annum through 2030. This corresponds to a reduction to consumer energy bills by over US$130 billion in 2030 and the avoidance of 260 GW in additional power generation capacity.

The report says governments have a range of policy tools available to help stimulate a sustainable market for more energy efficient technologies, many of which have already proven to be effective when fully implemented. However, to expect energy efficiency programs to extend to the delivery of new policies for ICT and consumer electronic equipment, while maintaining existing coverage, is unrealistic without a commensurate increase in the allocation of resources.

Moreover, smarter electronics which match the energy used by appliances to the services demanded by the user can lead to large improvements in energy efficiency, particularly in the growing number of appliances connected in digital networks.

Governments should define long-term policy objectives for technology in the electronics field, setting performance targets for individual appliances categories and work with industry and other stakeholders to agree on implementation plans, the report recommends. This approach defines the desired outcome and therefore provides industry with the long-term view on which to base their business models. It allows all stakeholders the opportunity to agree on a range of activities which will be most effective in reaching government objectives.

Commenting on the report, IEA executive director Nobuo Tanaka said that despite anticipated improvements in the efficiency of electronic devices, there is concern that these savings are likely to be overshadowed by the rising demand for technology in countries all around the world.

Said Tanaka: “Many mobile devices are already far more efficient in their use of power than other devices which run off a main electricity supply, and because extending the battery life of a mobile device is a selling point, manufacturers place an emphasis on designing products which require very little power. This example shows us what can be achieved. Where no such commercial drivers exist, governments must step in to ensure that we make the most of every energy efficiency opportunity.”